Editor’s Let­ter

Automobile - - Contents - By Mike Floyd

Set­ting records is even bet­ter than break­ing them.

AS THE OLD say­ing goes, records are made to be bro­ken. But you gotta make them be­fore any­one can break them.

That’s part of the rea­son why I’m rid­ing shot­gun in a spe­cially prepped Subaru WRX STI dur­ing a pour­ing rain­storm on Ro­ma­nia’s Na­tional Road 7C, aka the Transfa­garasan, a ser­pen­tine stretch of pave­ment in south-cen­tral Ro­ma­nia that has cap­ti­vated the imag­i­na­tion of au­to­mo­tive en­thu­si­asts the world over. So much so that Subaru de­cided it was well past due for some­one to lay down a record time.

I await my turn to be tossed about in this STI’s newly in­stalled pas­sen­ger seat, on the slith­er­ing path up the moun­tain with vet­eran rally ace Mark Hig­gins at the con­trols. The weather has been pure garbage ever since the Time At­tack Ro­ma­nia (Subaru’s name for its record-mak­ing ex­trav­a­ganza) of­fi­cially got un­der­way. As the rain pounds on the car, I won­der if this is the best idea.

Fog has also rolled in and out of the val­ley’s basin at the north­ern end of the road carved into the Carpathian Moun­tains. Bad weather has gen­er­ally played havoc with most of the 52.4-mile at­tack route.

Hig­gins ini­tially thought it would be straight­for­ward enough to lay down a solid time af­ter his re­con­nais­sance run ear­lier in the week. But that run oc­curred in agree­able con­di­tions. Al­though much of the route is heav­ily patched, with sig­nif­i­cant dips and ruts and var­i­ous other im­per­fec­tions, the sur­face it­self isn’t all that chal­leng­ing for some­one with Hig­gins’ ex­pe­ri­ence. In­stead it’s more about nav­i­gat­ing some 624 twists, turns, bends, and kinks.

Things seem solid enough as we launch from the start, tires spin­ning and spit­ting rain in our wake, with Subaru’s sig­na­ture 2.0-liter turbo boxer-four tuned to 600 horse­power and 447 lb-ft of torque emit­ting the scream of a thou­sand pissed-off bee­hives.

As Hig­gins quickly gets com­fort­able with the tires and con­di­tions, my hel­meted head bobs, weaves, and pings off the safety har­ness thanks to his ham­mer­ing of the brakes, the un­even tar­mac, and the mix of slow hairpins and faster, straighter stretches. But then the fog rolls in—into Hig­gins’ field of view, that is. The fog out­side the car was man­age­able enough, but when the wind­screen it­self fogs up, we have to slow dra­mat­i­cally, nix­ing the rest of the fun run.

There were also the usual prob­lems that can crop up when you’re ham­mer­ing the be­je­sus out of some­thing like the spe­cially built and prepped WRX STI Type RA, such as a balky boost con­troller (Subaru had to fly in a re­place­ment) and an elec­tri­cal is­sue that briefly stopped the car. Subaru com­mis­sioned long­time col­lab­o­ra­tor Pro­drive Ltd.—the mo­tor­sports and tech­nol­ogy com­pany that won rally cham­pi­onships with Subaru and has re­cently en­joyed a suc­cess­ful part­ner­ship with As­ton Martin in sports car rac­ing—to build the spe­cial time-at­tack ma­chine based on a U.S.-spec 2015 WRX STI. The car first saw ac­tion with Hig­gins at the wheel in 2016 when he took on the Isle of Man TT Moun­tain Course and set a record lap for a car, with an av­er­age speed of 128.73 mph. In 2017 Subaru did the Nür­bur­gring thing, with New Zealand driver Richie Stan­away set­ting a four-door car record of 6:57.5. Then the WRX STI went up the hill at the Good­wood Hill­climb with Hig­gins back in the driver’s seat, where it fin­ished third.

And now Ro­ma­nia and the Transfa­garasan. Hig­gins jokes that Subaru’s pub­lic-re­la­tions team is “try­ing to kill me” with all of these crazy record runs. The Bri­ton has been ral­ly­ing for the bet­ter part of 30 years and has done a fair amount of stunt­driv­ing work, in­clud­ing for the last three James Bond films.

The STI RA Hig­gins and co-driver Dar­ren Gar­rod use to at­tack the Transfa­garasan weighs about 2,425 pounds; the Pro­drive crew set it up sim­i­larly to a rally car tak­ing on a tar­mac stage. Fur­ther re­vi­sions en­able it to bet­ter han­dle the rig­ors and spe­cial na­ture and length of a course with el­e­va­tions rang­ing from roughly 1,607 to 6,699 feet. Mod­i­fi­ca­tions in­clude work­ing head­lights, a baro­met­ric sen­sor, and a larger 26.4-gal­lon fuel tank.

With the bad weather at its worst, it seems like these things al­ways go this way, with some un­fore­seen hic­cup caus­ing trou­ble. But on the last at­tempt, ev­ery­thing fi­nally falls into place. The weather sort of co­op­er­ates, the road is dry­ish, the car be­haves, and Hig­gins doesn’t get fogged up. The run’s full 52.4 miles passes by in 40 min­utes, 58.8 sec­onds. Av­er­age speed is 76.69 mph. Record made.

The gaunt­let has been thrown down, the stake is in the ground, the time is in the books— and we’re out of clichés.

Oh, and mean­while, a cer­tain 35-year-old record at per­haps the world’s most fa­mous race­track has fallen, too. See Steven Cole Smith’s story, “’Ring Shat­tered,” be­gin­ning on page 14, for the be­hind-the-scenes story of how Porsche and Timo Bern­hard re­set ev­ery­one’s idea about what is pos­si­ble at the Nür­bur­gring Nord­schleife.

Who’s got next? And where? And can we come along? AM

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